A guide to XVI century italian wine: Sante Lancerio and Pope Paul III

Important, but almost unknown outside Italy, Sante Lancerio was pope Paul III bottigliere during his papacy (1534-1549). Basically his work was selecting the wines for His Holiness, arranging them during banquets and tasting them to verify their soundness, sort of “Renessaince sommelier”. This was a very delicate role, for the worst that could happen was not simply having to taste spoiled wine: poisoning was one of the favourite ways of killing enemies and Sante Lancerio’s duty was also to prevent this from happening to the pope, risking his life.

papa-tizianesco

Pope Paul III

 

Not much is known about him, but he left us an important legacy: his manuscript I vini d’Italia giudicati da papa Paolo III (Farnese) e dal suo bottigliere Sante Lancerio (“Wines of Italy, judged by pope Paul III and his bottigliere Sante Lancerio”). The work, composed around 1540, was first printed in 1876 (“La Rivista Europea”, volume 2)  in a version edited by Giuseppe Ferraro (here you find the first part of the original publication, while here is the entire book in a 1890 edition – italian language only).
The text is divided in two sections, the first recounting the diplomatic journeys of the pope around Europe and the wines encountered in the different countries and the second judging italian and foreign wines he had the chance to meet on his duty. Drinking then was very different from drinking today: there were no brands nor label, little was known about the single producers and while regions and areas are mentioned, the boundaries were far to be precise. Although such a guide would be useless to modern drinkers, the language Lancerio uses to describe flavors and aromas is incredibly modern and similar to our. Terms like “lapposo” (tannic), “potente” (powerful) or “mordente” (biting) are still used today by sommelier and enthusiasts. Also, the structure of his comments is very rational and not much different from modern reviews. The work also represents a good snapshot of the state of italian wines in XVI, what was deemed good and what not. Let’s see a little bit more in detail.

Wines to avoid

Lancerio does not spend many words on foreign wines, mainly because they were not easy to find and spoiled quickly, but he has harsh words for them. Those from Spain are said to be very powerful and deep red in color, though their hue is often obtained by adding chalk, not exactly a healthy way of vinifying. While said capable of aging a hundred of years when stored underground in big clay vats, for the author they are not “wines fit for Lords” and he’ll rather leave them to the Spaniards (“sicché sono vini da lasciarli bere a loro“). Those from France mainly comes from Avignon, Languedoc and Biona (Beaune?) and while sometimes delicate, they do suffer their trip to Italy. Those from Provence are earthy and smell of leather (corame) and boots, so that in Rome they are not wine for the Lords. No other countries are considered.
Other wines to avoid are Mangiaguerra from Naples, very powerful, good for drunkards and sycophants, to incite lust, and Vino Romano “wine from Rome”, considered not good for health, because enriched with spices, flowers and herbs. The author also rejects Vino Calabrese and Pasciotta from Calabria, Corso d’Elba from the Elba Island, Latino Bianco from Latium and Greco di Nola and Greco della Torre from Campania.
Notice that the word “Greco”, probably does not refer to a specific grape as it does today, but to a “greek style”, that is sweet wine with relatively high alcohol and solid body. Furthermore, while Lancerio pays great respect to Paul III judgements, he does not always completely agree with them: while the pope never drinks Vino Romano, the author judges some of them good and considers Latino Bianco a pleasant drink for winter.

Good wines

The majority of the wines reviewed by the author falls in this category: good and often enjoyed by the pope (and Lancerio we presume), they fail to be outstanding because better consumed in a particular season, not consistent in quality or uninteresting when taken out from the place where they are made. For the most part the names don’t tell us much and even though they come from regions we can find on a map, we don’t know how much they differed from today production.
He cites the Mazzacane from Vico e Sorrento, not far from Naples, often drank by Paul III during hot summers, a bit too delicate, but for this reason good to comfort the sick and for the women; the Vino di Salutio (today Saluzzo, Piedmont, not far from the Langhe), very good, but often spoiled in the trip to bring it to Rome (a problem shared with the wines from Cerveteri and Castel Gandolfo, near Rome); the Greco di Somma, from the Vesuvius area, remarkable for its strength and sturdiness: it does not suffer when transported and seems capable of aging (the pope prefers it when 6 or 8 years old), although it goes to the head very quickly.
On the other hand there are wines whom we easily recognize. One is the tuscan Trebbiano, praised for being very delicate, but also needing careful matching at table.

Non di colore acceso, ma dorato, di odore non troppo acuto, amabile, non dolce, non agrestino, anzi habbi del cotognino. 

Not too bright, but golden in color, not too sharp on the nose, off-dry, not sweet nor acidic, some hints of quince.

Then we find the Vino nominato Lagrima (Wine called Lagrima), a clear reference to today Lachryma Christi. Behind this name, the tear of Christ, there are many legends, but the author ascribes it to the sound the grape would have made when picked, a moan like they were crying. To be enjoyed it needs it has to be aromatic, rich (polputo), crispy (mordente) and not “completely white”. Some cunning merchants are said to mix red and white wines and sell the result as Lagrima so we can deduce that at the time it was probably more known as a rosé.
Moscatello and Malvagìa (Malvasia) are also mentioned in the text: the former comes from many places, but the best is the one from Genoa, the latter is brought from Candia, in the greek island of Crete. Lancerio advises against fat Malvasia, for the good ones are clear, sweet, round, gentle and not too alchoholic.(1)
Lancerio also laments the loss of two wines, that from Portercole and that from the Isola del Giglio. The first was so good that the pope considered it the best he had ever drank, off-dry, not too strong and reminding moscato. He especially praises the one from the vineyards of Agostino Chigi from Siena. Sadly the soldiers cut most of the vineyards, giving a fatal blow to its production. The second disappeared after the arabs devastated the island and the people deserted it, searching refuge on the continent. Today 1,400 people live there and their wine falls under the almost unknown “Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario” DOC.

95+ Lancerio Points

Now let’s look at the wines the pope and Lancerio enjoy above the others.
The Vino Aglianico from Somma, near Naples, is red and powerful, not less than the Greco produced in the same area, and the pope used to drink them often, calling it a warm wine good for old people.
Then there is the Vino di Montepulciano, somehow ancestor of the modern Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: it has good color, good aroma and good flavors and it is “most perfect” both in winter and summer. The red is considered better than the white, which is curious: a century later Francesco Redi would have sung the virtues of the white dessert wine of Montepulciano without even mentioning the reds of this region. Vino Nobile itself is much a modern wine, but it would be interesting to know what Lancerio was drinking at the time.
We already met the Vino Asprino in the first post, talking about Redding opinions of XIX century Italian wine. Three centuries before, the ancestor of the Asprinio di Aversa was already appreciated, at least at the papal siege: Aversa is explicitly mentioned in the paragraph and while the word “sparkling” does not appear in the text, this region wine is described as molto crudo (literally “very rough, coarse”) which let us think to a sharp, crispy drink (even though Lancerio prefers red Asprino over white one). (2)
San Gimignano, famous today for its Vernaccia, made at the time a very good vino Greco. Production volume was very low, but the quality was excellent: at its best the wine had good color, aromas and flavor, with a pleasant quince character and a good creamy body. Lancerio also reports of some buonissime vernacciuole, probably ancestor of the modern white wine of the area.
Other names, even though much praised by the author and the pope, don’t mean much to us: vino del CiragioCentula and vino Chiarello, reds from Calabria; Coda di Cavallo (horse tail) a sweet wine whose color we don’t know; vino della Tolfa and vino di Albano, produced near Rome. Lancerio also introduces us to wines made in lands owned by the pope or his family, the Farnese: the vino della Magliana and the vino di Caprarola are described as excellent although, being Lancerio a faithful servant of the pope, we don’t know how much sincerity there is in such judgements.

Finally, let’s look to what is rated as the best of all, the true 100 points cult wine: the vino di Monterano. Here is my translation.

It is brought from a castle of this name, one day of travel from Rome. This wine is so good that if I had to tell its goodness, it would take too much and I could not write and praise it as it deserves. It has all the property that there should be in a wine, there is color, scents, flavors, the fragrance of the violet at the beginning of the season, a delicate ruby hue and a taste which leaves the mouth as if you had eaten the best muscat. It’s slightly sweet, with a bite so pleasing that makes you cry from joy. It is good as aperitif, it is good as digestif, it’s nutritious and gentle, so that for me a Lord cannot drink a wine better than this. This wine is suited to all courses, it’s never harmful, on the contrary, even red it clears the stomach, so that you can drink it as a digestif. His Holiness often enjoyed it, since the new wine was ready. First at S. Martin (November 11th A/N), because before he would not try new wines, nor drink any, then he would have drunk the sweet ones all through May, and also, if still good, to July. The dry ones he would drink in the rest of the season. Many prelates would like to drink this wine, but the place is small and makes few of it, so they must have patience.

This should have been the Sassicaia of Renaissance, the Falernum of early modern age. But where is Monterano and what makes today? Maybe some Frascati or Castelli Romani DOC?
No. Sadly the town was destroyed in 1799 by the French and never recovered, today it is a ghost town in the commune of Canale Monterano. Bread-making and oil production thrives in the place, but no grape is grown anymore. The best wine at the papal siege is destined to remain a legend: Lancerio with his writing gave us at least a sparkle of his glory, but made us also wonder about what will be left of today wine 500 years in the future.

(1) Here the author uses two words which often recurs in the text, fumoso and matroso. I spent a lot of time wondering about their real meaning: fumoso in modern italian means “smoky”, but this does not seem to apply here (at least not in the “smoky, flinty aroma” sense), while for matroso I had no idea. For the former I found a possible explanation herefumoso would stand for “too much alcoholic”, as used also by the italian poet Carducci.
On the other hand matroso should come from the word madre, which in italian means “sediment, deposit” (in addition to the obvious “mother”). A vino matroso is therefore a wine cloudied by too much lees and sediments (see Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana by Ottorino Pianigiani, vol. 2, page 790, here).

(2) The word crudo may also stand for uncooked: wine were often cooked because this process made them more durable, but this would not be the case for Asprino.